How to Recognize That Your Team Members (or You) Are Stressed or Overwhelmed

By Diane Dempster, Executive Coach — Even the most balanced and grounded leaders have their off days. Life stressors and work stressors can create imbalance, turbulence, and unwanted reactions. Your industry or work may be quick paced, even intense. If you notice that your team member(s) are consistently off balance, it might be an indicator of poor job fit. It might also simply be an indicator of stress and overwhelm. The most successful leaders understand that proactive awareness, stress management, and support for a healthy workforce can make or break the bottom line. How do you recognize the difference and what do you do about it?

There are four common responses(1) that people have to stress and overwhelm. Keeping an eye out for these behaviors can be a great barometer of an overwhelmed individual or team – and an opportunity to check in and figure out what is most needed to bring the situation back into balance.  See if you have noticed any of these common behaviors or coping mechanisms in yourself or your team members:

Controlling:  When individuals feel overwhelmed by a situation or environment, one natural reaction is to try to increase a sense of control. Employees go overboard, trying to grab control wherever they can.  This looks like stubbornness, inflexibility, bossiness, etc. This perspective suggests that if they take charge and get everything in “order,” it will decrease any sense of ambiguity and they can relax.

Distracting:  Distracters avoid feeling stressed and overwhelmed by “doing.” Indicators of this would be a team member who is constantly on the go, busy doing everything (except the task at hand), mindlessly bouncing from item to item. An overwhelmed brain naturally wants to calm down, and feeling productive (at anything) can be a way to make that happen.

Pleasing:  You work hard to create a work environment where ideas are exchanged and questioned.  You might even encourage more open debate and conflict management. If you suddenly notice a trend toward rule following and an employee just doing as he or she is told, it might be an indicator that the individual is too overwhelmed to think critically. A stressed brain finds it easier to comply than to think critically.

Isolating:  An isolator tends to refrain from social interaction and normal work-day pleasantries. He or she would be more apt to withdraw, hide in their office, and even avoid contact. Clearly some of us are more introverted and enjoy this time alone, but a change in behavior in this direction would be an indicator that something more significant might be going on.

When we notice these behaviors in ourselves or our team members, it can be an indicator that something in their life is pushing them (us) into a state of stress or overwhelm and that a core coping mechanism has kicked in. Some of us might just ignore the situation and give our colleague some “space.” In other instances, we might be wondering if corrective action or feedback to change behaviors would be appropriate.  A conscious leader approaches the situation with compassion and purpose. Here are some suggestions around what to do:

  • Create a transparent environment. Make it “ok” to openly talk about overwhelm and stress management in your work environment. Educate everyone, particularly leaders and HR team members, on the issues and signals of stress and overwhelm.
  • Show Compassion. I’m not talking about being touchy-feely here! According to Statistic Brain, over 75% of the workforce indicates that they regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. It’s a normal and very common experience. If leaders brush over, or even judge employees who are dealing with a very real, physical and mental challenge, it’s no different than ignoring any other serious (and potentially contagious) health issue in your workforce.
  • Walk your talk. Pay attention and manage your own stress and overwhelm. Set a pace in your workforce that encourages achievement and advancement, but NOT at the significant cost of physical and emotional health.

When a leader notices these signs in themselves or their team members, the place to start is with awareness and curiosity. Helping your team actively manage their stress and overwhelm is no different than helping them to learn how to do their job effectively, and that is a core competency for any Fearless Leader.

(1)Adapted from Warrior Goddess Training (HeatherAsh Amara)

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